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Grappling with Critique from the Margins: Navigating Disability Activists’ Challenge to Christian Healing in the Classroom

The power to heal: Popular culture and religious practice alike celebrate healing as a balm for human hurts, lifting up healing as a potent promise of renewal for body, mind, and spirit. We live in a world that places powerful faith in the practice of medicine, that celebrates the curative technology of the physician, and that frequently casts pharmaceutical cures as a secular sacrament. Christian discourse commonly treats healing as a spiritual gift, a signal expression of God’s redemptive power. For the early Christian community, gospel narratives of Jesus healing the sick and the lame gave visceral expression to God’s promise of liberation—and also served a tangible sign of Christ’s divine power. While few of my students begin the semester able to parse the theological significance of Christian healing discourse, most would assent to the widely shared assumption that healing is a desirable quality, a benevolent offering.

Healing as Violence: Challenges from Disability Experience

Within disability communities, however, healing is widely seen as a source of physical and spiritual violence. “I know someone who was dragged from pillar to post with healing, to heal their disability,” recounts one of the speakers in Claire Cunningham’s Guide Gods, a contemporary dance performance that examines the intersection between religion and disability in the lives of disabled people of faith. Disabled herself, Cunningham recalls her own encounters with people who stopped her on the street to pray over her, to tell her that “she looked in need of healing.” From exorcisms designed to drive the devil out of a disabled body to pious invocations that faith will make you well, Christian healing practices have driven some people with disabilities away from religion. Prevailing notions of healing run counter to many disabled people’s recognition that our bodies and minds are worthy as they are—that disability is a meaningful form of human difference, not a defect to be erased. Disability theologian Sharon V. Betcher argues that Christian discourses of healing often presume the deviance and insufficiency of the disabled body. They function as a way of normalizing difference, as an imperialistic effort to remake all bodies in a single normative image.

Strategies for Engaging Difference in the Classroom

Grappling with the disconnect between these perspectives is a central theme in my course, THEO 130: Religion and Disability Studies. Challenging the presumed benevolence of healing raises a number of pedagogical questions about engaging difference, especially as it asks students to consider the shadow side of beliefs that many of them hold dear. Let me share four specific strategies that I find useful in the classroom:

Center the Voices of Disabled People

Disability bioethicist Jackie Leach Scully argues that disability communities are subject to pervasive epistemic injustice. While nondisabled scholars and practitioners regularly make claims about disability, accounts of disability experience by disabled people are routinely dismissed and afforded less credibility. As a teacher, I work to shift that dynamic by privileging disability perspectives. Alongside more traditional forms of scholarship, we read disability memoirs, analyze interviews with religious practitioners with disabilities, and probe examples of disability culture.

Engage the Arts

Near the end of Guide Gods, Claire Cunningham says, “I believe that disability is a valid state of being, natural and naturally occurring . . . I'm glad to be disabled. I wouldn't want to be any other way.” While the words are powerful in their own right, Cunningham’s artistry gives them visceral punch. As a disabled dancer, Claire’s work with crutches challenges conventional notions of crutches as awkward or ungainly. Her artistry lets us see what crutches make possible: the dancer’s capacity to lift her body, to hover in the air, to land with extraordinary lightness. To watch Cunningham dance is to recognize disability as a kind of virtuosity, to know that something would be lost were disability to be erased from this world. 

Underscore Diverse Perspectives within Minority Communities

There’s an important moment in Guide Gods when Cunningham says, “I have to be careful that my more politically driven perspective doesn't steam roll the voices of Deaf and disabled people who . . . may indeed want healing.” I aim to incorporate these perspectives into my classroom as well, to underscore that minority communities are not monolithic. Disability communities don’t speak with a single voice. Neither do religious communities.

Recognize Religious Traditions as Dynamic Sites of Interpretation

Religions are not timeless, unchanging artifacts, but living and dynamic systems of thought and practice. While students often begin the semester wondering what a given religion teaches about disability, our class reframes such questions to focus on the act of interpretation. How are religious ideas contested—not just from the outside, but also within a given tradition? Uncovering the diversity of perspectives in a given religious tradition makes it possible for us to analyze the different ways Christians have understood healing, rather than accept or reject healing tout court. I expect students to be able to articulate the critiques many disability activists have leveled against religious discourses of healing. I ask them to analyze how disability-sensitive Christian theologians are reinterpreting healing narratives and crafting alternative healing practices. 

But when it comes to their own beliefs? My teaching is grounded in a fundamental respect for my students’ own spiritual and personal autonomy. I strive to build a classroom that leaves space for each of us to hold our own views—to shape our own understandings about what healing means, and whether or how it matters in our own lives. At its best, I believe, such a classroom reveals the generative power of engaging with difference. It offers us a rare and privileged space to explore new ideas, to grapple with hard questions, and to examine together the consequences of our convictions.